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(Marian Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
(Marian Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

Smokey and the Lotus Add to ...

In moonshine country, the preferred ride is a plain sedan with a hot-rod motor and race suspension - you might be able to outrun the sheriff, but Plan A is to slip past unnoticed.

Forget that. I arrived in north Georgia driving a car that looked like a supercharged fishing lure - an orange Lotus Exige with a wing on its tail.

Heads turned as my wife and I burbled through Trenton, a bible-thumping hamlet. Our tiny English speedster was an exotic minnow in a sea of Detroit sedans and jacked-up pickups with gun racks. We were in the heart of Dade County, where the church parking lots are packed each Sunday.

The Exige drew a congregation of onlookers at every gas stop. "What the hell is that?" one good old boy asked. "Looks fast."

The local law enforcement apparently thought so, too. I kept it in second gear through town, but the sheriffs watched the Lotus like a shark appraising a seal - ticketing a Yankee speed merchant in a 270-km/h foreign hot rod would balance the police budget for years to come.

Never mind. I had come to play in one of America's greatest and least-known sports meccas. Winding through the mountains outside Trenton are a set of roads that were once a bootleggers playground, thundering with the late-night music of tricked-out Fords loaded with Mason jars.

My first trip to the area was back in 1986, when I decided to go flying at Lookout Mountain, hang gliding capital of the eastern United States. I've loved the place ever since.

On the droning boulevards of Toronto, my passion fades. But a trip to Lookout resurrects it every time. The roads are like a tarmac bobsled course - you careen through rock-walled valleys, soar past 1,000-foot drops and dive into canyons lined with hardwoods and kudzu vines. There are hairpin turns, high-speed sweepers and seductive straights that end in diminishing-radius curves that lay a trap for the unwary. Driving a car quickly here is like flying a hang glider - mistakes will cost you.

Now I was here in the Lotus, the perfect vehicle for a twisty road. My wife and I picked it up near Atlanta at Lotus USA, a concrete building filled with magical-looking parts - carbon wings, jewel-like V-8 engines, and forged suspension arms. Set to one side was an Exige chassis, a tiny aluminum concoction that looked a soapbox derby racer built by NASA. And there was our Exige.

"Is that a real car?" my wife asked. The cockpit had the austerity of a fighter plane: the padding on the seats was the thickness of a cocktail napkin, and the pedals were bare aluminum, shaving off a few grams. Heading into traffic, the Exige was a cheetah carving through a herd of hippos. Next to this, a Porsche 911 felt like a minivan.

My first run-in with the law took place within the hour, as we headed north through the hill country toward Lookout. Stuck behind a logging truck that was dropping branches and gravel chips, I decided to use the Lotus's spectacular acceleration to jet around it, and threw in a car or two for good measure.

A few minutes later, we were at a gas station, surrounded by a crowd of admirers. "God, what is that thang?" one woman asked. Then a white-haired gentleman appeared. "That's a fast little car," he said. I agreed.

Then I noticed the gun on his hip - he was an off-duty sheriff I'd passed along with the logging truck. We weren't in his jurisdiction, but he got on his cellphone to call in a local officer.

"They're gittin' a ticket!" a local in a camouflage hunting jacket announced.

One of my southern buddies had dealt with a situation like this by giving the sheriff a perplexed look and announcing that his wasn't the only yellow Corvette in Georgia.

But that was out. Mine was probably the only burnt-orange Lotus Exige 240-S this side of California.

I admitted to the sheriff that it was me who had rocketed past him, and that I had definitely been way, way over the speed limit. He waited to hear the rest.

"I wanted to get around that truck," I told him. "The car goaded me on, sheriff. I apologize."

Although things had started out chilly, the sheriff was warming up to our oddball vehicle. "I know my cars," he said. "Never saw one of these."

I opened the engine compartment and showed him the supercharger. Then it was on to the oversized brakes, the gumball tires, and the racing style updraft radiator. The sheriff softened.

"I'm out of my jurisdiction," he said. "If you drove away, I couldn't stop you."

My years in the south made me realize that driving away would be a mistake. The sheriff was sizing me up, deciding whether I was the kind of guy who needed the book thrown at him. I told him I was prepared to accept whatever punishment he and the local officer decided on. Now the local cop had arrived, a young guy with a shaved head and tattooed arms. He conferred with the sheriff for a minute, then turned to me.

"You're a grown man," he said. "You don't need a lecture. On you go. That's a cool car."

Two hours later, we were at Lookout. Hang gliders soared over the green valley outside Trenton, and a spring sun warmed the roads. We rolled through town, turned onto a side road, and let the Exige off its leash. In most cars, this road took 20 minutes. The Lotus polished it off in less than 10.

Now I needed another fix. We headed to Cloudland Canyon and arced through the switchbacks, addicted to the road unreeling in front of us.

The Exige was a ground-bound F-16 - 230 km/h arrived in seconds. Even on a deserted road, this kind of speed was a dangerous drug. A blown tire could spell disaster.

And the orange Lotus was definitely attracting the sheriff and his deputies. After years of dealing with southern boys in hopped-up Camaros, they were instinctively attracted to the Lotus, which conjured up a high-powered, brightly-painted cockroach - it looked like it was speeding even when it was parked.

The sheriff's radar gun would be out of its holster for the duration of our stay, and getting arrested here was no laughing matter. Everyone ends up in a tabloid newspaper called Just Busted - 32 pages of mug shots from half a dozen counties. I hoped not to be in the next issue.

Just in case, I decided to scope out some hiding spots. The Lotus had barely enough ground clearance to drive over a deck of playing cards, but I chanced a trip up to my friend Rex's place on the side of the mountain. Rex lived on a deep-woods cul de sac, and his home was one that would warm the heart of a southern sheriff - a trailer that paid tribute to both the Confederate army and the NRA.

Rex emerged at the sound of the Lotus and stared, transfixed by the British apparition that had rolled into his yard.

"What is that thing?" he asked. "It's insane."

Rex had the right credentials for the Lotus. As a U.S. Army Ranger, he had learned how to squeeze his muscular frame into tank hatches, and the doors of the Exige were about the same size. Off we went. An hour later, we stopped at Starbucks for a coffee, buzzed after a few high-speed passes through a set of choice curves.

"This is a crazy car," Rex said. "But it's cool."

After five days, I was worn out. Driving it quickly reminded me of hang gliding - an intense thrill that demanded exceptional skill and vigilance. Now my mission was accomplished. I'd driven America's best back roads for a week in the world's greatest lightweight sports car - and I had stayed out of the Dade County lockup.

My wife and I headed south toward Atlanta the next morning, keeping pace with the traffic in our tiny orange speedster. The next issue of Just Busted was probably going to the printers. And we wouldn't be in it.

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